Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Why Sidewalks Matter

Alan Ehrenhalt, one of America's leading Communitarian voices, wrote another salient piece for Governing last week. The topic of this article: sidewalks. Sidewalks, Ehrenhalt contends, can function as a venue for casual association. 

Ehrenhalt recalls a time when he and his friends would gather on the sidewalk for hours at a time:

When I was a kid on the South Side of Chicago, we didn’t have front porches. We and our neighbors would congregate during summer evenings on the placid sidewalks of Everett Avenue, trading gossip and opinion while standing around in little knots of weak-tie fellowship.

What, though, does Ehrenhalt mean by "weak ties"? Well, weak ties, in contrast to strong ties, represent casual relationships, like those between two neighbors in an apartment building or peripheral acquaintances that smile and nod to each other in the grocery store.  While these passing interactions may seem trivial, they are actually an immeasurably important component of robust community life. If two people walking past each other on the sidewalk stop for a quick chat, or even just a brief exchange of niceties, they are, in essence, communicating something very important: that this community is a safe space and one that respects social etiquette. 

But what if the sidewalks are in shambles? Then where do the two neighbors go to shoot the breeze? A lack of adequate infrastructure is detrimental to people's ability to engage in social interactions.  

Ehrenhalt notes that many city governments allocate little in their budget to sidewalk maintenance and construction:

A recent study by the urban planner Todd Litman concluded that the average city spent about 1 percent of its infrastructure budget on sidewalks, even though walking accounted for 11 percent of residents’ trips every day and pedestrian fatalities constituted 17 percent of all traffic deaths.

 More people ought to be talking about this...

And, sadly, it is low-income communities that bear the brunt of this neglect. Not only do folks in these forgotten municipalities lose out on valuable social capital by not having walkable sidewalks, but they face an appallingly high risk of being killed by automobiles speeding down the road. People should not have to fear this in their communities. 

More attention has to be paid to infrastructure, as it can facilitate much needed societal connectedness in towns across America. And, ultimately, more people need to read publications like Governing and Public Square: A CNU Journal. These publications understand the importance of the Communitarian spirit and the positive role of proper city planning. 


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